Shh … here that sound? It’s Johnny Carson spinning in his grave …
It’s hard to believe, but it was not that long ago that NBC was the leading broadcast television network in America. My, how the peacock has moulted. Nowhere is the lack of vision at the network so obvious as in their handling of Jay Leno and the iconic late night vehicle “The Tonight Show”. It’s quickly turning into a classic example of how not to handle the succession of leadership – or leadership in general.
Throughout its long history, the Tonight show has seen old hosts go and new ones come. Most people remember the classy way Johnny Carson departed nearly 20 years ago to make way for Jay Leno, and assumed there’d be something similar when Leno’s time came. Behind the scenes, things were not nearly so smooth. When Carson left, NBC has more hosts than timeslots, and when Leno was given the Tonight Show, David Letterman (who at that time followed Carson) bolted to CBS and direct competition with Leno. No doubt fearing a similarly messy future, NBC promised Letterman’s replacement – Conan O’Brian – the Tonight Show slot once Leno retired. They even went so far as to identify the point five years in the future when that transition would occur. Apparently, thought, Leno either didn’t get the memo or simply didn’t sign off on it.
Last fall, as the five-year window approached closure, Leno began to grumble about leaving, indicating that he was being pushed out the door rather than retiring. He even intimated that once he was off “Tonight”, he might bolt to another network and continue his late-night career. Suddenly, NBC once again found themselves with an embarassment of riches.
We all know the old fable of the dog with two bones, and what happened to him. Actually, I guess everyone knows the story other than NBC’s Jeff Zucker, who wanted to keep both bones. His genius move? Scrap the expensive, unwatchable 10PM lineup and give the slot to Jay! It’s perfect, he must have thought – we get old Tonight Show followed by the new Tonight Show!
Well, that worked about as well as you might imagine. Leno bombed at 10, angering affiliates who lost their vital viewer lead-in to their local newscasts. Conan, meanwhile, who was a tenuous fit at best for the Tonight Show, lost all the Leno fans who simply got to sleep a little earlier now.
For those wondering how long the experiment – and the pain – would last, the answer is apparently February. Multiple sources are reporting that Leno’s show has been cancelled and will be off the schedule once NBC ends their coverage of the Winter Olympics. O’Brian, meanwhile, was asked to accept having the Tonight show pushed back a half-hour to make room for a new half-hour Leno show at 11:30 and suggested NBC go pound sand, claiming he was “defending the franchise”. NBC looks like fools, Leno looks like an ungrateful bully, and O’Brian looks for a new network.
What amazes me is that whoever owns NBC/Universal/General Electric/Comcast, or whatever they are, will allow the good soldier O’Brian to be shown the door while Zucker and Leno both keep their jobs.
More to follow, no doubt …